Ecotourism: Hope or illusion?

Sustainable tourism brings people to the places it wants to protect. Can this paradox work, or would it be better just to leave nature alone?
A tourist in the Tenorio Volcano National Park in Costa Rica. With more than 2 million visitors in .../ Credits: Reuters
Protests had been going on for months, but on June 5, 2009, violence erupted, leaving 33 dead. Indian activists and Peruvian police forces clashed over government plans to ease economic development in Peru’s Amazon forest.

It took a special UN envoy and government concessions to deescalate the situation. Peru’s government backtracked from its decision to exploit the Amazon region’s rich natural resources. But Peru needs money. In 2004, over half of Peru’s population was poor, according to World Bank standards.

An alternative model for economic development, and one that could work for Peru, is on display in Costa Rica. The country, a world leader in ecotourism, decided early to preserve its natural beauty and cash in on tourists rather than on tropical hardwoods or oil.

Ecotourism "provides effective economic incentives for conserving and enhancing bio-cultural diversity and helps protect the natural and cultural heritage of our beautiful planet," according to the International Ecotourism Society. And looking at the figures, it has been a lucrative choice for Costa Rica. The number of foreign visitors has grown from some 330,000 in 1988 to more than two million in 2008, earning the country some 2.2 billion dollars just last year. And revenues from ecotourism are relatively high. In 2007, the average tourist spent one thousand dollars, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute.

However, the success of ecotourism in Costa Rica and elsewhere is also its biggest problem. Criticism comes from many different, and sometimes even opposing, points of view.

Searching for the unspoiled

Ole Kamuaro, chairman of the Kenyan Tourism Trust Fund, complains that sustainable or environmentally friendly tourism is often just mass tourism in disguise. Protecting the land for tourists, he says, simply means taking it away from local communities, thus destroying their traditional livelihoods.

Masai nomads lost some of their best land to national parks and conservation projects in East Africa. Profits, however, went elsewhere: to Kenya’s more developed regions or abroad. “While ecotourism sounds comparatively benign, one of its most serious impacts is usurpation of ’virgin’ territories, which are then packaged as green,” says Kamuaro.

To Kamuaro, the adventurous ecotourist in search of authentic places is the harbinger of social and environmental degradation. In search of the unspoiled, the ecotourist is the first to spoil the land.

Another aspect of ecotourism that stains its balance sheets is air travel. Guests from well-off industrialized countries usually fly in to an eco-lodge located in some remote region of the third world. Wouldn’t the world be better off if we all just stayed at home?

Not quite so, says Costa Christ, senior director for ecotourism at Conservation International, a U.S.-based NGO. “If we could magically stop all air travel tomorrow, far from saving the Earth, we would unleash a global conservation crisis,” he writes in his blog, ”Beyond Green Travel.”

Without tourist dollars, the famous Serengeti game park would soon be covered with human settlements, he argues. And Brazil’s massive Pantanal wetlands would turn into a cattle-rearing hotspot. The challenge, Christ says, is not how to stop travel, but how to get it right.

"Don't become another paralyzed citizen of the planet"

Harry Bateman is trying to get it right. The South African runs TerraPi, a conservation and ecotourism project bordering on the Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve. When he bought the 10,000 hectare-farm, the land was exhausted from industrialized farming practices, and black wattle, an alien plant, was overrunning local vegetation.

Together with partners such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Bateman set up several conservation projects to restore, or “heal” the land, as he puts it. But conservation doesn’t bring in money, so Bateman decided to establish an ecotourism company as well. Simply leaving the land alone is no longer an option.

“I wish we had that luxury, but we have already interfered. If we leave it [the environment] now it will change irrevocably. If we don’t manage the problem we have created it will alter what we get from it.”

Bateman’s land, for example, functions as a catchment area, providing water for millions of people and huge swaths of farmland. Tourism, he says, is the only way for him to ensure these environmental services.

“If you want to travel to South Africa, do something good in return. Buy less junk, save more money for trees, and travel if you like, just don’t become another paralyzed citizen of the planet. Do something,” he says.

Such action doesn’t have to lead to bloodshed. Ecotourism shows that there is an alternative between the two extremes of exploiting natural resources, such as wood or oil, and economic standstill. Preserving the last pristine spots on Earth is important. But with more than six billion people populating the Earth, fencing out people is rarely an option. 

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Comments (20)

Kuldip Tangri: 01.06.2011, 08:55

First of all carbon dioxide causes global warming is a flawed propaganda. It is making fool of the billions people. Removing carbon dioxide from the earth atmosphere is just like removing (plucking) the feathers of a bird to cool him or her of. The green house gases are as natural as feathers on a bird or scab on a wound. Green Travel will help the atmosphere by adding the greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) which will change the dew point of the clouds by mixing with them. It will help the clouds to travel farther without falling apart to prevent the drought in that area.

jade smith: 11.11.2010, 11:47

World’s second largest barrier reef, Belize Barrier Reef, position in the Northern Hemisphere, is a diving hub for all levels of divers.

Mustafa Meyer: 27.04.2010, 11:11

We think mass tourism is not good for the environment. We must save the environment, but if we retreat too much the people get poorer, because they will lose their jobs. But on the other hand, if we retreat from the nature, the environment can developed freely.

Joline Julia: 27.04.2010, 10:52

In my opinion we have to change something to save our environment.

We all know the negative impacts of CO² - emission. The glaciers are melting, the see level rises, the climate will be changed and the tropical cyclone will be more.

Travelling with planes should not be banned, because some people have to fly in their job.
About a few things one must be as an ecological tourist in the clear: The costs lie clearly higher than in an all-inclusive vacation.

We should think about this:

Vacation with the nature instead of vacation at the expenses of the nature.

Aleno Womail: 27.04.2010, 10:51

I think the problem mentioned in the article is a major issue, not only in this part of the world. But on the other hand, ecotourism is a good way to save oil and other resources, instead of mass tourism. The problem is many countries have no money and they can’t be environmentally friendly. So it is the only chance for them to survive.

Pilse Bi3r: 27.04.2010, 10:50

In my opinion, green tourists are important for our environment, because someone must protect our environment. But I wouldn't make a eco travel, because I want to chill and relax in the holiday. Furthermore I don't to travel so far in so far places of the world.

Julia Vogel: 27.04.2010, 10:49

I think Eco-tourism is very important for countries and for his economic so it is better you help the national parks and help that the animals can life calmly we must be help the endangered species animals. when you help the National-Parks than you can see more from the country and you learn how the people live there. Mass tourism brings more money than the Eco-tourism, but the Tourists get rubbish, are loud, when there are drinking there are trouble the inhabitants, that is not so good for the country because they have an miserable note.

wir sshwuli: 27.04.2010, 10:47

Offcourse it is very important to protect the nature and the environment.The nature give's the people there workplaces and they earn money for there families. I think it would be wrong if we do not use the nature. For example the eco-tourism is a big part of the econony in many countries and in some the only part, if we trow this part away we will make a misstake and many will lose there jobs and there hope.

D.O P.W: 27.04.2010, 10:45

This text is good, because it shows troubles about eco-tourism, for example the tourists need long-haul flights to get there and this damages the environment.
On the other hand the environment needs help from the humans to exist. So it´s difficult to decide whether to stay at home or to do an eco-tour.
Another problem is that eco-tourism is very expensive and not everyone can afford the trip.
Also it´s not so good for families or older people, so there is only one type of people who can do this trip, they must be young, have money and “sacrifice” their holidays to make a contribution to the conservation of endangered species.

Vanessa Isabell: 27.04.2010, 10:42

Today saving the environment is very important for all of us. But to go on an Ecotourism isn't good for every country than they live from the mass tourism, for example Spain. Mass tourism brings more money than the Ecotourism. But on the other hand you know a country better when you help there, because you see more from the country and you learn how the people live there. It is a good feeling when you have done something for the environment. For example you can help protect elephants in a Sri Lanka national park and forest reserve.

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